Brexit is a word that has been tossed around for a while now. Everyone has heard this and that, “It’s good because…” or “No, it’s a bad thing because…” and many people seem to skim over some of the highest portions of what the United Kingdom leaving the European Union would look like. Trade and movement through Europe will certainly look different than it does today. Right now when you fly and drive between countries it’s a meer walk and breeze, but after Brexit moving from the UK to other European countries that are aligned with the EU will become a more burdensome task, akin to what it’s like to go in and out of the United States. One key element that has been overlooked by the major attention span of people is how this decision will affect Ireland and more importantly the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Why is this one of the most complicated portions of Brexit?
This decision to leave the EU undoubtedly change the face of the European continent. Since its early notion, it has been turning heads and now as this change is being realized the ramifications of such a change are becoming real. The UK may find struggles in cutting itself off entirely from the European Union, but nothing that it cannot survive. The greater danger lies in applying such a hard line in a place that is still feeling the effects of conflict that ended just twenty years ago. As of 2018, the border between The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is seamless. While taking our bus tour between the two the only indication that you had left The Republic of Ireland was the fact that the speed limit signs changed from kilometers per hour to miles per hour. This lack of separation is important, it is part of what helped end The Troubles in Ireland. The Troubles were a struggle between two opposing sides, one wishing to join a reunited island of Ireland, and the other wishing to remain part of the UK as an independent (more or less) country. The free flow between the two countries is part of what helped create peace and placing a hard border with checkpoints, immigration, and the works poses a serious threat to unnerve the region again. There is also an added issue of what will happen to the towns, communities, and homes that lie right on or near the border between the two. Many people travel between the two countries freely now to work, see family, and even do things as simple as shop for groceries. Implementing a border between the two would bring that kind of flow to a screeching halt and that is something that neither country wants to see.
Now that Brexit is happening for certain, what comes next?
Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much that can be done about this issue. There have been proposals but all of them have been rejected by either the Prime Minister of Britain, Northern Ireland MPs, or both! So what’s next? Well right now, no one seems to be sure. May is dead set on a hard exit, meaning that the UK is leaving the single market and the EU customs unit. Such a decision would mean that a truly seamless border could not be kept between the two countries, since this would imply checkpoints to enforce immigration, transport of goods, tariffs, etc. And any attempt to make Northern Ireland exempt from the decision for the hard exit would effectively nullify the purpose of Brexiting or section off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK (another undesirable end for British government). The current solution is that there is no solution and that Brexit is more or less at a stand-still because of it. A handful of other proposals have been set forth, but they too have been rejected.
Option one – new UK/EU customs agreement
One of the proposals was to create a new UK-EU customs agreement that would allow as close to a seamless border between Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland as possible. But as mentioned before, this has the same undesired outcome of effectively nullifying the purpose of Brexit. In this scenario, the only difference of post-Brexit UK would be that it’s not officially a member of the EU, even though it still trades and interacts with the EU as such.
Option two – Northern Ireland can stay part of standing EU customs unit
Another option that was proposed by the EU as a fallback if no decision is made, is that Northern Ireland could stay part of the EU customs unit. This is one of the options undesired by all parties involved (except the EU). British parliament does not want this as it sections off Northern Ireland from the UK and again, defeats the purpose of Brexit. And Northern Ireland doesn’t want this because they do not want some sort of preferential treatment that would mean a separation away from the UK.
How do these new progressions in British-European politics affect the unrest in Northern Ireland?
There is no clean out from this point on for the UK government. If they proceed with the decision to Brexit as they intend (which they likely will since the date is already set), in one way or another Northern Ireland will be cut off from the rest of the island. Putting up this border raises a strong possibility for the unease and conflicts of the 60s-90s to return. And if the decision is to not enforce a border to separate the UK from EU member countries, then there is not much of a point to leave the European Union in the first place. Barring some miracle plot-twist to reverse the decision to Brexit at all, the UK is going to take a hit and Northern Ireland will likely feel the pain the greatest.
Right now there is no clean cut for the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Not only will it have a heavy impact on international trade, politics, and travel, but the UK will likely feel the effects quite heavily in their own backyard. With the rise in Nationalist and Isolationist tendencies in western politics much broader thought needs to be taken to the possible outcomes and effects of the changes that are proposed in any country, and with the rise of Populism, you cannot forget about the concerns of those not aligned with the general movement.